Every year, usually toward the end of the spring term, the Reading Room in the Congregational Library suddenly fills with middle-school students from Japan. Their visit is as orderly as could be expected from ninety adolescents, (in three groups of thirty) far away from their homes back in Kyoto. They mill around, whisper, and point, and then under the teacher's urging, a small group steps forward, usually with gifts in hand, and a short speech memorized in English: "Thank you for sending Joseph Neesima and Christianity to Japan."
We are all together in that Reading Room because of one special person.
Niijima Jo came to Boston in 1865, a young man from a samurai family (minor aristocrats, in other words) at a time when Japan was slowly and painfully opening its doors to Western culture. Over two centuries of forced seclusion ended in 1853 when Admiral Matthew Perry sailed his ships into Tokugawa Harbor — and with him a flow of western technology, ideas, and trade goods. But in 1864 leaving Japan without government permission was still illegal, and not for the faint of heart.
Niijima Jo was ambitious, well-educated, and he was anxious to see the world beyond the shores of Japan. In 1864 he persuaded an American ship captain to take him to Hong Kong, where he found another ship. The owner of the ship Alphaeus Hardy, would change his life forever. Captain Hardy, as it turns out, was a member of the Old South Church in Boston, and with his help Niijima Jo (who named himself Joseph Hardy Neesima in honor of his American friend) got the education he longed for and more. He attended the Phillips Andover Academy, Amherst College, and Andover Seminary — in every case the first Japanese to earn a degree. In 1874 he gathered another first when he was ordained as a Congregational minister.
By then the young man was becoming restless. Japan had changed a great deal in the ten years since he had left, and its new Meiji government was determined to catch up with — and surpass — the west in learning, technology, and military power. The time was right to return to Kyoto, but now with the backing of the Congregational mission board, and to fulfill a long-term dream.
The Doshisha University was established in 1875 as a "one-purpose school," its mission to bring the best of western scholarship and Christianity to Japan. The goal was, in Niijima's words, to raise up "Christian statesmen, Christian lawyers, Christian editors, and Christian merchants, as well as Christian preachers and teachers." Christians, Niijima insisted, should not be "ignoramuses".
Today Doshisha is one of Japan's most prestigious universities, with over 26,000 undergraduate and some 3,000 graduate students. Its guiding philosophy of "conscience education" embraces intellectual, as well as moral and physical strength. It was Niijima's dream to have a fully integrated educational system, offering schooling from kindergarten through graduate school. The Doshisha Elementary School, which opened in 2005, is a realization of that ambition. The students who come to visit us, then, are special, connected to us by a long history and shared ideals. It's always wonderful to welcome them back to a building and a library that Niijima Jo would have known, and treasured as we do today.